They start small:
She’s ten years old, standing on the little stool in front of the bathroom mirror, brushing her hair-- one stroke, two strokes, her face screwed up with concentration-- when something jabs her hand.
She drops the brush with a squeak. Two tiny spots of blood well between her thumb and forefinger, no larger than a pinprick. She sucks the spot gingerly and reaches up to touch the back of her head. Something squirms beneath her fingers. She twists to see what it is: a snake, no longer than a toothpick, is growing up between the roots at the nape of her neck. It’s livid green, with tiny glass-chip eyes and a little flickering tongue. It watches her in the mirror; it can be nothing else but a snake.
She’s already received The Talk from her mother, and has gleaned a vague-but-certain knowledge of growth spurts and unexpected moods. But unexpected snakes?
After a moment's contemplation, she runs to her mother’s bedroom and steals the tweezers from the dressing table. Then she sits in the bathroom and stares at her reflection. She can’t see the snake now, and it hasn’t bitten her again.
There are, she reasons, an awful lot of things she’s not learned about yet at school-- like algebra, and Giant Sloths, and all the cities in the UK-- maybe snakes are one of those?
She stares at the tweezers, then at her reflection, then she sets them down very carefully and sweeps her hair into a low ponytail, hiding the snake from view. She feels it wiggling against her neck all the way to school. Sometimes it hisses.
The second snakes come a week later. These ones are long and black-- identical twins-- with little yellow diamonds all the way down their backs. They sprout up from her forehead, trailing down either side of her face. She tries to coax them with a comb, and with a cereal bar from her lunch box, but they snap and twist and refuse to lie still.
More come: each morning brings a fresh snake -- a little black-headed coral or a hooded cobra-- until by the end of the year she has no hair left.
The snakes don’t like her; they resent growing from her head. They bite her ears, eat combs and hair grips, pull and twist in great wriggling clumps until she sobs, red-raw. She never forgets the day, aged thirteen, when her science teacher brings out a little cage of white mice, and her entire head lunges towards it en masse.
The sound is unbearable.
“Just cover them,” says her mother, pragmatically. “Cover them and nobody’ll know.”
She can’t. She’ll know.
At fourteen a boy grabs her shoulder in the school corridor and lurches back, howling, as the snakes sink their fangs into his hand.
“I’m sorry!” she cries, over and over again, curled into a ball, tears streaking her chin. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
By fifteen she can identify every snake in her herpetology textbook. She knows that the smallest are often the deadliest, that the largest suffocate their prey, and that once a month they shed their skin (this is always the worst, like a year’s worth of dandruff. Her head full of second bodies.)
She has learned to avoid crowds and small animals, to wrap the snakes up tight whenever she leaves the house. They hate this, and writhe beneath hats and scarves, hissing and biting, wrestling to be freed.
“At least you look normal,” says her mother. “At least nobody can tell.”
She can tell.
The sensation of scales is intolerable. She lies awake at night, staring at the ceiling as the snakes wiggle and twist, and she cries great gulping tears.
She is lonely and miserable, but never alone.
The hissing is relentless.
At twenty-one she meets a girl with dark, dark eyes and a smile as bright as stars, who asks very gently if she would like to go for dinner, and she’s so startled that for once she says yes.
It is a stiff, sterile affair; a darkened restaurant, a table long and awkward between them, the snakes bound tight beneath a headscarf. She refuses the girl’s hand, refuses to be touched, refuses to move closer for fear of tiny fangs.
They walk in silence down the moonlit streets, and she’s certain she will never see the girl again.
But her date watches her all the way home, thoughtful and composed. Then, to her surprise, she takes her hands on the doorstep and invites her inside.
“Just to talk,” says her date. “Just to talk, if you like.”
She doesn’t want to go, not really, but she lets herself be led, face burning with embarrassment and shame, up the stairs to the girl’s flat.
They sit in the living room, cups of tea steaming in their laps. Finally her date asks:
“Can I see?” Then, “you don’t have to, if you don’t want to.”
And to her surprise she finds herself unravelling the scarf from around her head, although her heart pounds and her chest aches with shame. The snakes fall freely around her ears. They twist, their little mouths snapping the air. Her date reaches out--
“Wait-” she flinches away, remembering the boy, remembering the sting of a hundred tiny snakebites.
Her date pauses. “I’ll be gentle. I promise,” she says.
And slowly, slowly, she winds her hands through the press of bodies, feeling the smoothness of scales, watching the little coal-chip eyes.
For once, they don’t bite. None of them bite.
Slowly, slowly, the hissing subsides. Quiet, blessed quiet, fills the gaps. The world is calm. The world is still.
Not forever, she knows. But for this one breathless moment.
“I like them,” says the girl with dark dark eyes and a star-bright smile. “They’re yours, and I like them.” And she kisses one of the snakes, ever so gently, on its triangular head.
And they are hers. God, they’re hers.
Georgia Cook is an illustrator and writer from London. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, Staunch Book Prize and Reflex Fiction Award, among others, and published as both an author and reviewer. She can be found on twitter at @georgiacooked and on her website at https://www.georgiacookwriter.com/